Visitors to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison in July are seen wearing face masks. Health experts continue to stress the need to wear face masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Visitors to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison in July are seen wearing face masks. Health experts continue to stress the need to wear face masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo © Andy Manis)

As Wisconsin continues with record-high cases, more local leaders looking to take action in lieu of state-wide policy.

Most Wisconsin municipalities have been reluctant to enact public protections intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, but more communities have begun to adopt face mask requirements as the number of cases of the virus reached another one-day record Tuesday. 

According to state Department of Health Services figures, there were 964 new positive cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, topping the previous one-day increase record of 926 on Saturday. Previous one-day highs were recorded on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, a sign of a statewide virus surge. 

The seven-day daily case average has climbed to 764, up from 556 just one week ago. Six new deaths were reported Tuesday, bringing the total in Wisconsin to 826. 

Despite those figures, two months after a state Supreme Court decision ruling overturning an extension of safer-at-home measures enacted by Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, the vast majority of cities and villages have no protections related to COVID-19.

Since those protections against spreading the virus were lifted, the number of state residents testing positive for it have risen dramatically, with more than 20,000 new cases since Memorial Day. 

However, those figures may be creating greater public awareness about the spread of COVID-19, public health officials said, and appear to be prompting more actions intended to protect against its spread.

Demands for mandating face masks are on the rise, public health officials said, in large part because masks are thought to be the best defense against the virus. 

During the past week “the dial is moving toward more requirements for masks,” Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson told UpNorthNews Tuesday. “People are starting to put two and two together and realize we need to do more to try to control this virus.”

On Monday Nelson issued an executive order mandating the wearing of face masks in all Outagamie County buildings. On Tuesday night the County Board is scheduled to approve the matter. 

Other communities across Wisconsin are taking up face mask-related actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On Monday the Milwaukee City Council approved mandatory face coverings along with a separate motion to provide free masks to city residents. 

In Milwaukee, anyone age 3 and older is required to wear a face mask in public buildings and any outdoor public space where it’s not possible to stay at least 6 feet apart from people not in the same household. 

Another mask requirement ordinance took effect Tuesday in buildings owned by the city of Appleton, including City Hall, police and fire department structures, and park pavilions.

Other communities are enacting face mask measures, but they don’t include enforcement actions if people ignore those orders. For example, an emergency mask advisory begins at 8 a.m. on Friday in Ashland and Bayfield counties. It encourages those age 5 and older to wear masks in buildings when gathering with others from different households, but includes no penalties. 

Similarly, the Eau Claire City Council was expected to endorse a measure Tuesday to encourage, but not require, residents to wear face masks in public spaces. The proposal by council President Terry Weld and council member Kate Beaton states that the wearing of masks and practicing social distancing can halt another COVID-19 outbreak and the shutdown of the economy. 

Not every community is greeting the prospect of a mask ordinance, however. 

The Portage County Health and Human Services Board discussed an ordinance on Monday that would mandate anyone over age 3 wear a mask. Most people speaking at the meeting were against adopting the proposal. 

WSAW-TV quoted health director Ray Przybelaski as saying “I think that it was clear with the comments that most people were against the county looking at some type of ordinance to do this, but I do think it’s important that the county has the discussion,”. 

Likewise, WAOW-TV reports the city of Wausau’s Human Resources Committee tabled a decision on requiring city employees to wear masks. Committee members said they needed more details and information before making a decision.

The city of Superior is attempting a mask-wearing approach that has more enforcement teeth to it. On Monday city officials referred a resolution requiring wearing masks in public spaces to the City Council, which is expected to vote on the measure next week. 

The proposed resolution would impose penalties on those who don’t comply by charging them with trespassing. Businesses refusing to abide by the regulation could lose their licenses and the ability to receive grant funding. 

Superior Mayor Jim Paine said not all council members back the proposal, and some local residents have expressed support for the lifting of safer-at-home regulations. But his office has received many calls urging the adoption of a mandatory mask resolution to halt the spread of COVID-19, he said, as cases have increased. 

“We’re getting pushback to this, but we’re receiving a lot of demands for it too,” Paine said. “I do not believe that a recommendation, even a very strong one, does anything to halt the spread of the virus. You have to have a deterrent.”  

For a time after the coronavirus pandemic hit Wisconsin in March, Superior and surrounding Douglas County were home to a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases. Residents returned to restaurants, taverns, and other gathering spots. 

“Even those of us who had taken the pandemic very seriously started to relax,” Paine said. 

But in recent weeks the virus in the county, like most Wisconsin locations, has surged, prompting concerns about its fast-growing spread. If COVID-19 numbers keep climbing across the state, Nelson, the Outagamie County executive, predicts more communities will take up resolutions mandating masks.

“As people see these numbers go up, they are concerned,” Nelson said. “Masks work and they save lives. That is the compelling reason to do this.”